27 March 2019






3 mins

On Wednesday 26th March, 2019 – Migrants have taken over a merchant ship off the Libyan coast and were headed north, towards Malta.

The EL HIBLU 1, a bunkering tanker built in 2015 registered in the Republic of Palau was taken over by 108 migrants when she was six miles off the Libyan coast. The ship was on her way to Tripoli, Libya from Turkey with Turkish crew but she diverted to the rescue area and was taken over by some of the rescued persons.

Several hours later, the tanker changed course and headed north wards in the direction of Malta. The communications with tanker were lost, after the migrants took over control of the tanker after they were informed about their forced return to Libya. Migrants in Libya face trafficking, kidnap, torture and rape.

The last contact with the ship was an alert sent out by the captain, claiming that vessel was under piracy

An AFM spokes female officer confirmed reports of a pirate ship and the ship was heading north and was expected to reach Maltese waters Thursday morning.

The Maltese army was putting units on standby and was seeking legal advice since this could be the first case of sea piracy in the Mediterranean in recent memory and vessel will be refused to allow her entering territorial waters

Reports said the ship was registered to Palau and included Turkish nationals among her crew. She was sold off by a Turkish firm on March 11th. The Turkish Foreign Ministry reportedly stepped in to assess the situation.

The migrants hijacked the vessel when it became clear that the captain planned to take them back to Libya, according to the website of Italian daily Corriere della Sera and Italian news agencies.

“These are not migrants in distress, they are pirates, they will only see Italy through a telescope,” said Italy Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has cracked down on illegal immigration, including closing Italy’s ports to charity ships, since he took office in June last year.

“This is clearly a case of organised crime,” Salvini said on Facebook. “Our ports remain closed.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the EU said it will suspend ship patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean.

The rescues were part of the EU’s Operation Sophia which diplomats have decided to extend by six months beyond its March 31 expiry date, but without new ship deployments, the bloc announced.

Instead, the operation will rely on air missions and close coordination with Libya despite the political chaos that has scarred the country since 2011.

“Member states have decided to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for six months with a temporary suspension of its naval assets while member states continue working on a solution related to disembarkation,” said EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.

However, Sophia “is a maritime operation and it is clear that without naval resources, it will not be able to carry out its mandate effectively,” she added.

Since its launch in 2015, after a series of tragic shipwrecks, the mission has claimed the arrest of some 150 traffickers, and rescued 45,000 people.

But the election of a far right-populist government in Rome last year changed the fate of the mission, with authorities taking a much harsher stance towards rescued migrants heading for Italian shores.

Italy’s anger effectively put an end to rescue operations through Sophia a year ago, even as the EU credited the mission with having stopped smugglers taking migrants on dangerous sea crossings.

Last week Italy’s senate rejected a request by prosecutors to investigate him for kidnapping over a case in August when he blocked an Italian coastguard ship with 150 people aboard for almost a week off Sicily before finally letting it dock.

This week, Italian authorities released the MARE JONIO, a charity rescue ship (tugboat), which was detained during March, 2019 after she defied the government’s order not to bring migrants to Italy.

For the moment, two ships patrol the central Mediterranean as part of Operation Sophia: Spanish ESPS RAYO P 42 and Italian’s frigate ITS LUIGI RIZZO F 595 which are supported by air assets from Spain, Italy, Poland and Luxembourg.

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